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PEGIDA protests turn up heat on EU immigration officials

Spike in xenophobic demonstrations underscore need for comprehensive migration policy, experts say

Thousands of protesters from the far-right group PEGIDA gathered in the Netherlands and Germany this week to rally against their countries’ asylum policies.

The recent rise in these anti-immigrant demonstrations is evidence that nationalist groups are using fears of instability caused by the refugee crisis to pressure ruling parties to create policies to keep immigrants out, one expert told Al Jazeera.

Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, assistant director at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute’s international program, said that images of overflowing shelters, crowded buses and chaotic scenes at border crossings feed into people's negative perceptions of migration and contribute to a Europe-wide surge in populism.

“If we can't get these things under control, it’s going to fuel more panic," she warned.

In the eastern German city of Dresden on Monday, an estimated 7,000-9,000 people demonstrated against the government's decision to take in some 800,000 refugees. Protesters carried a mock gallows marked for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her deputy.

On Sunday, hundreds rallied in Utrecht in the Netherlands, and another protest is in the works there for November, PEGIDA said on Facebook.

PEGIDA, an acronym for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, was formed in Germany in 2014, has gained supporters in other Western European countries and has seen a surge in popularity in recent weeks, capitalizing on anxieties over mass migration. This year, about 558,000 people — most fleeing violence in Iraq, Syria and Eritrea — requested asylum in the European Union, more than double the number of last year. Attempts to force EU member countries to adopt a mandatory quota system have largely failed in the east of the bloc.

The protests are, in part, “a product of Europe's failure as a whole to come up with a unified solution,” Banulescu-Bogdan said.

While the protests' turnout in Dresden didn't match levels in January, when turnout exceeded 30,000, officials are feeling the heat in local elections.

A PEGIDA member received nearly 10 percent of the vote in the Dresden mayoral elections earlier this year. In Vienna, the far-right FPO won about 30 percent of the mayoral vote Sunday, a record performance for the party

But Banulescu-Bogdan said PEGIDA is unlikely to win enough votes to ever form a government.

While groups such as PEGIDA have been growing in popularity as agitators, joining a government would be “a whole other thing,” Banulescu-Bogdan said, downplaying the group's prospects at the national level.

“It’s difficult for one-issue parties to make a huge dent on the national stage,” she said. "But there is a pervasive sense that the leaders who are supposed to be in charge of maintaining order and legality are not doing their job."

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